Guest Columns


Pumping liquid sunshine from Colorado’s 200 million year-old carbon capture reservoir

Denver’s Davis Graham & Stubbs law firm holds monthly energy policy seminars for those willing to crawl out of bed in the early hours of the morning. Last week’s discussion of “President Obama’s Climate Action Plan” drew a crowd of a hundred or so. The breakfast bar included healthy yogurt berry smoothies with granola and the usual high carb pastries. With this crowd, the donuts disappeared first, amidst grumbling about the lukewarm coffee. Chairs were set up in a classroom style and our hosts kicked off with an admonition about fire escape stairwells, clues on how to identify DGS fire wardens (look for their red hats) and where to reassemble outside on the sidewalk. This proved both reassuring and a little unsettling. Leave it to attorneys to protect themselves against any eventual responsibility for your charred remains.

The speakers’ panel included Shaun McGrath, the Region 8 Director for the Environmental Protection Agency, Kathleen Sgamma of the Western Energy Alliance (Energy Producers), Amelia Peterson of the Governor’s Climate & Forests Task Force and Eric Waeckerlin of DGS, the morning’s moderator and energy practice rainmaker. He reminded his guests that 3 billion people in the third world still have no access to electricity, and 1.2 billion of those regularly cook with firewood or animal dung. Fossil fuels are producing 80 percent of the electricity that is generated. Waeckerlin reminded us that whatever the threat of climate change from greenhouse gases, those waiting for electricity aren’t particularly concerned about their contributions when measured up against the historic record of emissions spewed by the developed world.

No one commented on the fact that creating a pollution exemption for some and not others was rather like roping off a peeing section in your neighborhood swimming pool. Remember the smoking sections in airplanes? McGrath spoke next and highlighted the finding that average temperatures have increased 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1950 and are projected to continue warming up our atmosphere by somewhere between two and 11 additional degrees through the end of this century. The President’s Executive Order was characterized as a policy designed to strengthen ecosystem resilience. Weighing in on behalf of the fossil fuel producers, Kathleen Sgamma pointed out that the United States had reduced its carbon footprint by more than any other industrialized nation with our emissions approaching 1994 levels. This, of course, is almost entirely related to a growing reliance on the natural gas bonanza. She characterized the European Union’s failure to significantly curtail emissions as a consequence of “top-down” policies that contrast with our own free market, “bottom-up” improvements.

Amelia Peterson from the Governor’s office pretty much ignored her fellow panelists and launched into an arcane argument that 50 percent of emissions are linked directly to land-use decisions, which may well be true, but how these policies might be better shaped was left unexplained. At this point, the discussion lost any real focus on the President’s Action Plan and began to generate a litany of competing factoids: 29 percent of the gas fracked in the Bakken formation in North Dakota and Montana is being flared off as compared with a national average of just 1 percent; 30 percent of the small businesses shuttered by damage from Hurricane Sandy have never reopened; a 3 percent leakage of methane from production facilities makes natural gas just as dirty as coal (the industry’s goal is limiting gas field losses to 1.5 percent); the International Panel on Climate Change has linked greenhouse gases directly to increasing drought events but not necessarily with mega-droughts (10 years or more in length); carbon capture and sequestration technologies are approaching 50 percent efficiency; and the temperature increases already “baked into our future” will place strains on fresh water supplies.

All parties claim they rely on good science but then squabbled courteously about what all that good science actually says. Kicking the can down the road appeared to be the strategy everyone can support for now. Even climate change alarmists within the Obama administration acknowledge the challenge is not a priority for the White House. The administration’s plate is filled with more proximate crises and it is willing to settle for patting themselves on the back for doing a better job reducing emissions than anyone else. Of course our allies in the European Union are beginning to complain that we are hogging our cheap, newfound natural gas when we could be liquefying it and shipping it across the Atlantic at a premium price that could break their reliance on thieving Russian oligarchs. New Liquefied Natural Gas ports are in fact under construction and much of that cheap sunshine captured in Colorado’s geological formations eons ago may soon be a lot more expensive. Continued investment in renewable energy technologies feels like a smart plan B. The sun will still shine and the wind still blow in Colorado whatever the temperature.

All our recent wildfires, beetle infestations and flash floods may just be a matter of coincidence, as unlikely as that seems. After all, if there hadn’t been flood events in the past, there wouldn’t have been canyons along the Front Range in the first place. And our foothill forests have burned regularly for thousands of years. Economic resilience, just as ecological resilience, relies on a diverse set of participants — biological diversity in the case of Colorado’s environment and multiple suppliers in the case of energy for heating and cooling our homes and businesses. Two cheers for cheaper oil and gas until it too shall pass. You might want to hold on to one cheer for responsible regulation. We are likely to need some of that sooner rather than later.

Miller Hudson served two terms in the Colorado Legislature and was also executive director of the Colorado Intermountain Fixed Guideway Authority that studied the feasibility of a high-speed monorail between the Denver and Eagle County Airports along I-70.